His boyhood was filled with stories about the Civil War, and a confederate gorilla named Jessie James. He heard about bank robberies. Stage coaches and trains across the United Stated provided a way for thousand to go to California to search for gold.
All the storied stimulated the imagination of a young boy in Missouri. He was fascinated by the stories of the Indians living in the Plains. Their life style was so different. He heard of strange landscapes and places were the snow on the mountains never melted. Places so flat you could see 20 miles or more in any direction without seeing another human .
The stories told of adventure, danger, and a chance at riches. Imagine a little boys sitting quietly, wide eyed and totally wrapped up in the tales as they were told around the dinner table or on the front porch.. The men were rough and tough and stood bigger then life. Little Charlie Marion Russell couldn’t wait to grow up. He knew he had to be a cowboy.
A few days after his 16th birthday he arrived in Montana and begin a job tending sheep. He knew he had to start somewhere. Even if this wasn’t what he dreamed about. It gave him a chance to watch the world around him. He watched the behavior and habits of the animals and the people around him and drew sketches. Eventually he moved on to a job as a night wrangler for the Judith Basin Roundup.
The young man and the job was a good fit He was able to work and still be able to observer what was going on around him and do his drawings. He was in the middle of the world he daydreamed about as a child. He was able to get up close and personal with the life of a real cowboy. He met the Indians, He faced hungry wolves and other wild animals striving to survive in what could be a very cruel live.
Winters in Montana are very harsh, with temperature reaching 20-40 below zero and wind speed about 20-40 miles and hour. In 1886 the winter was exceptionally worse. Snow packed down by melting and refreezing make grass impossible for cattle to get to food, A horse will dig with its hooves to get to grass, cows won’t. The only hope is for a winter supply of hay. Once the hay was gone the last hope was for a “Chinook”.
Some people call it a “spring thaw” In Montana its called a Chinook. It refers to a wet warm wind that comes in off the Washington and Oregon coast. Sometimes in Montana the air can be so dry that he snow is “freeze dried”. A Chinook can to melt a foot of snow in one day.. The snow partly melts and partly evaporates in the dry wind. Chinook winds have been observed to raise winter temperature, but the temp drops and re freezes. It thaws enough to be able to move the cattle to areas exposed enough to let them feed and recuperate before continued with the cattle drive..
In 1886 the winter was extremely harsh.. C. M. Russell was working for the Ranchers in Judith Basin. The Judith Basin was usually able to maintain They started with a herd of over 5000. The herd suffered the stress of the Drive , the extreme cold and the weaker ones and the calves became food for the wild animals. Low areas where used to shield the cattle from the cold winds but leave them no place to run when a pack of wolves attached the herd.
CM Russell ‘s got his first real recognition as a Cowboy Artist because of that winter in 1886 The foreman of the ranch had come to CM Russell with a letter from the investors who were concerned about how the cattle were surviving the harsh winter. The foreman said he was not sure how to answer the question since the news was really bad. C.M. Russell took a post card size piece of paper and drew a sketch of a half starved cow surrounded by three hungry wolves. Underneath it He wrote. “Waiting for a Chinook”. The sketches illustrated the situation perfectly
The post card size sketch was placed in a local shop window and became C.M Russell’s debut into the public eye.
He later did the painting “Waiting for a Chinook” and added a few more wolves.
CM Russell became known as the cowboy artist . He was friends with Will Rodgers among may other famous people of that time.
The CM Russell Museum has a large collection of his painting showing what life was like for the cowboy It shows everything from a comical misjudgment of a young cowboy, to the unruly behavior of a horse trying to get to his owner. He painted the Indian War parties. He reproduced the stage coach robberies, the building of the rail road. He did at least 3 paintings of Lewis and Clark He left behind a collection of amazing paintings and stretches that documents the Life and History of the West in a time before cameras were common.
He was on good terms with the Indians. He never tried to change them, he just tried to understand them. He collected artifacts that are on display at the C.M. Russell Museum including a breast plate of Chief Joseph.
His cabin studio was build near his home which has been restored on the site.
Anyone who is interested in Art and the History will be able to spend a full day In Great Falls Montana. It is more of an experience then just a visit to a museum. One can not leave without having an appreciation for part of American History that has been over shadowed by other historical events. I have included a link that will provide information about the museum